Hello To All This: JM Rizzi Returns to NYC

JM Rizzi, Elegy of Tekashi, 2021. Courtesy of the artist.

JM Rizzi: Cause and Effect


January 23 through March 3, 2021 


I talk about how difficult it would be for us to “afford” to live in New York right now, about how much “space” we need, All I mean is that I was very young in New York, and that at some point the golden rhythm was broken, and I am not that young anymore. The last time I was in New York was in a cold January, and everyone was ill and tired. Many of the people I used to know there had moved to Dallas or had gone on Antabuse or had bought a farm in New Hampshire.

— “Goodbye To All That,” Joan Didion

It was January 2021, and the scythe-like winter air was at work sheathing off the past year. Unprecedented numbers of alleged New Yorkers had fled the city, a maudlin flurry of Joan Didion references trailing their wake. That January week, one native New Yorker made his first post-pandemic return to the city and found it eerily nostalgic, comforting even. Brooklyn-born and Dallas-based gestural artist JM Rizzi grew up in Staten Island during the 1990s. From there, he gazed longingly at the city across the water.

Rizzi was his working class neighborhood’s resident artist, undercover save for classes at the School of Visual Arts during high school. He and his friends escaped Staten’s suburbia for the Palladium, the Limelight, the Tunnel. “It wasn't the 1980s or the 1970s,” Rizzi qualified, “but it was still crazy and scary.” These were the final dregs of the pre-Giuliani era. 

Rizzi enrolled in SVA fulltime and began combining graffiti motifs from those late night adventures with fine art influences like Kline and Motherwell. “I commuted for a couple of years before moving because I had to figure out how to get an apartment and pay for it,” he added. “My father worked in the city and he commuted back and forth every day. My oldest brother went to Pace University and he commuted every day. It was just a thing, this ebb and flow, particularly living in Staten Island.” 

“I can look back at it now romantically,” he told me, “but it was a fucking beating. I was notorious for missing the boat by five minutes at two in the morning. It’s February and my Walkman is out of batteries and I'm outta cigarettes and I still have to wait 55 minutes for the next boat.”

In 1995, Rizzi finally secured his own place on Ludlow, across the street from the infamous Alleged Gallery. The tiny space was fortified with lofted beds surrounding the shower at the room’s center. “There were skaters that I would see in videos and magazines skating out in front of my apartment,” he recalled. “I’d skate with them.”

“There was a playfulness,” Rizzi said of downtown during that time. “It felt like raw creativity.” All around him were his brethren, misfits and weirdos. Music and art and the very craft of carrying oneself all harmonized, just like hip hop culture linked arms with graffiti and breakdancing, like punk music transcended its form to encompass an entire ideology. “Even though the place I went to relax was one of the most dangerous neighborhoods on the East Coast at that time, I slept pretty well at night,” Rizzi said.

The artist and his roommate Jaime Morrison moved out of Ludlow Street when its cramped quarters grew too tight. Rizzi returned to Staten Island and began working at Woodward Gallery in SoHo. One day, the owner told Rizzi, “I think I have an apartment for you.” 

Rizzi's apartment on Mercer in Soho. Courtesy of Jaime Morrison

At Mercer Street, between Prince and Spring, they entered an industrial door to another world—workers rolling stogies on their knees, stacks of cigars spilling over tables. “It smelled like tobacco, the walls were stained,” Rizzi recounted. “It was pretty beautiful, actually.” 

The basement apartment was 4,000 square feet beneath the factory. Rizzi and Morrison made it their creative cave immediately with typewriters and canvases and detritus they adopted off the street. They painted in acrylics and latex paint and spray paint. Rizzi favored illegal marsh ink, purchasing it from the same shop where Keith Haring procured his materials.

“I was broke as hell,” Rizzi noted, a contrast to Soho’s newfound chicness, alien from the grit he’d known on Ludlow. “It was a dichotomy of feeling tremendously lucky to be in this place, yet I lived in an apartment with no natural light. I would wake up at two in the afternoon and it’d be pitch dark.”

Rizzi and his roommate moved out of Mercer Street in 1999 when the landlord overseeing their semi-legal tenancy rented the apartment out from under them. “We ended up in Greenpoint because Greenpoint was the only neighborhood that would have us,” he laughed. There wasn’t much happening when they arrived at the working class Polish neighborhood. Shortly after moving in he went to a local bar for a Knicks game and worried he might get his ass kicked.

Across the Manhattan Avenue delineation, Williamsburg simmered with an energy akin to what Rizzi had known on the Lower East Side. He and Morrison aped the Bukowski archetype—drunken curmudgeons criticizing the mainstream, making work that rarely staggered out of their own circle. Rizzi had studied with David Carson and Jack Whitten in college and developed a taste for chimeras of fine art and graphic design. He and Morrison were a reciprocal audience. 

Around the new millennium, Rizzi noticed his friends working in street art and was drawn to its many conversations—between artist and artist, between artist and viewer. He began dousing massive wooden boards in brushstrokes, mounting them on construction scaffolding with security screws. Street art shot to fame in New York and around the world in tandem with the advent of blogging, which brought its yield to ever-newer households. Rizzi’s career enjoyed a formerly foreign success in the years that followed.

Always chasing the moment, Rizzi moved to Dallas in 2009 to start a new chapter. “Displacement is a really good fuel for creativity,” he stated. “It requires you to create your own world.” This past decade down south has uprooted the audience in his head. “Being in New York feels like every moment matters,” Rizzi intimated. “It was impossible to quiet my inner critics.” The liberation empowered him to simplify his creative process, encouraging experimentation. 

JM Rizzi, Street art on Keap St., Brooklyn, 2000s. Courtesy of the artist.

In January, the artist made his post-pandemic return to New York for the opening of his solo exhibition Cause and Effect at WallWorks Gallery in the Bronx. Each painting in the exhibition culminated his explorations since moving to Dallas—richer materials and more sophisticated conceptualization centered around the elusive nature of motion itself. After checking into The Arlo, Rizzi strolled around his former neighborhood. “Granted, it was bone-chilling cold,” he said, “but the streets were empty, there were no restaurants open, everything was covered in graffiti, there was even a big Cope 2 fill in right there on Canal Street.”

Over the past decade, Rizzi has made countless return visits, watched his old haunts turn into pottery shops and barre studios. When Rizzi returned this January, it was the first time he felt more at home, not less. Quiet streets and empty storefronts harkened back to a city rife with potential, ready for the taking. 

“Many of the shows that I did starting up were DIY spaces,” he noted. “Physical space in New York is so valuable that if you get a chance to have it, you make the best of it. Creative people use it the right way”

While Rizzi’s work re-evaluates our relationship to physical space, the spaces that have fostered his development have been concrete, albeit shifting with time. As we say goodbye to all that and make room for the next New York, Rizzi knows the city will prevail to utter another hello. “New York’s always had a target on its back, and I’ve always wanted to be there 24/7. I want to wake up in it. I want to fall asleep in it. I want to not have to leave it. I want to not have to just miss the ferry by five minutes.” WM

Vittoria Benzine

Vittoria Benzine is a street art journalist and personal essayist based in Brooklyn, New York. Her affinity for counterculture and questioning has introduced her to exceptional artists and morally ambiguous characters alike. She values writing as a method of processing the world’s complexity. Send love letters to her via: @vittoriabenzine // vittoriabenzine@gmail.com // vittoriabenzine.com


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